If you can write, you’ll never go hungry (NOT)

One of my favorite books about non-traditional higher education is This Way Out: A Guide to Alternatives to Traditional College Education in the United States, Europe and the Third World (1972), by John Coyne and Tom Hebert. Though obviously dated, it contains marvelous advice on self-education, as well as providing a snapshot look at innovative new degree programs of the day.

Throughout the chapters on independent learning, they urge the importance of developing writing skills. For example:

If you can write English clearly, you’ll never go hungry.


You have to write, so write well. To write well, write a great deal. At least 1,000 words a week; go for 2,000. Four to ten pages. If you do that as a student, you’ll never have to go hungry later. We may even say that again.

Coyne and Hebert anticipated the evolving information age and knew that the ability to write a good sentence or two would be crucial to succeeding in it. As the service sector replaced the manufacturing sector as a primary source of jobs, and as the burgeoning flow of information created opportunities for work, job candidates with good writing skills would be much sought after by employers.

40 years later

Well…they were right about the information age, but they didn’t anticipate that as it went digital, the premium put on good writing may not translate into a decent, living wage for the writers.

In an op-ed piece for the New York Times titled “Slaves of the Internet, Unite!,” writer Tim Kreider opens by sharing how many times he is “invited” to supply content for free, then adding:

People who would consider it a bizarre breach of conduct to expect anyone to give them a haircut or a can of soda at no cost will ask you, with a straight face and a clear conscience, whether you wouldn’t be willing to write an essay or draw an illustration for them for nothing. They often start by telling you how much they admire your work, although not enough, evidently, to pay one cent for it. “Unfortunately we don’t have the budget to offer compensation to our contributors…” is how the pertinent line usually starts. But just as often, they simply omit any mention of payment.


Especially with drops in subscriptions and advertising support for print journalism, it’s up to those of us who care about the news to support the newspapers and other periodicals we enjoy reading.

The Internet has made freeloaders of most of us. We click to articles that others spent hours researching, writing, and editing, and we expect to access the material for free. When we hit a paywall, we become indignant. (What’s a paywall? It means you click to an article and find out you cannot access it without a subscription, or perhaps paying a small fee.)

I access a lot of free content, but I also subscribe to more newspapers and magazines than I could possibly read cover-to-cover. I see it as investment in the kind of writing and journalism that we need in our society. Good reporting is a bulwark of an open, accountable society, and sometimes we have to put some money behind it.


Related posts

So you want to be a writer? (2010)

“I’ll write for free!” (2010)

E-Writing for Free: Is Journalism Becoming Volunteer Work? (2009)

One response

  1. The compensation is “exposure”, usually expressed in how many hits or viewers the website gets, with the implication that at least some of those viewers will be paying websites that will invite the contributor to work for them. And that is how media businesses can get away with not paying for content – well, that, and that people keep saying “yes” to offers to work for free. As a musician I know always says, once you agree to work for free, you’ve shown what you think your product is worth.

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